Tyrannical Certainty

Alllll the way back in September, I was sitting in the hallway of the Learning Center at my school, killing time before tutor training class, when one of my fellow novice tutors showed up with a brochure in one hand and a sandwich in the other. It was around lunchtime, but the sandwich would go uneaten for a while. Her appetite was lost during her walk across campus, due to the enormous banners with equally enormous pictures of aborted fetuses outside the library.

“There’s dead fetus pictures?” I said.

She confirmed that yes, this was true, and, “Don’t you think it’s a little extreme?”

Before I had seen the banners for myself, or even thumbed through the brochure which had even more dead fetus pictures, the sensationalism had seduced me. “There’s dead fetus pictures?” I repeated.


“Could you watch my stuff?”

Venturing out to the library would prove to be a stupid idea for more reasons than the mere fact that I have a runaway imagination that has no trouble soaking up extreme images and reproducing them at night while I’m trying to go to sleep. This is why many of my nights are spent with the light on.

…shut up, don’t judge me.

My beloved fundamentalist atheist friend later told me that most of the pictures pro-lifers use are actually pictures of pig fetuses, but the ones on campus that day looked pretty darn human to me. As I inspected the gruesome depictions like a sick voyeur, I was approached by a middle-aged guy with a baseball cap and an armful of brochures. He held one out for me to take.

“I’m okay,” I said. “We’ve got plenty in the Learning Center.” This wasn’t a lie. After I left my backpack with the fellow novice tutor, I noticed several abandoned here and there on my way out to indulge in all this sensationalism and contagious outrage. The baseball cap guy wasn’t frothing at the mouth or anything, but I did pass a rather fervent young man who was laying down some Thus sayeth the LORD rhetoric on someone he’d managed to stop.

These pictures of pig fetuses… I mean, human fetuses… (Like I said, they didn’t look piggy to me, but the beloved atheist is very passionate about certain things. When statistics and whatnot are used to support said certain things, to the inexperienced ear, it’s hard not to take it as fact without any grains of salt or research on one’s own.) Anyway… these pictures of human fetuses, this carnage, Baseball Cap says, if it was in the newspaper and on CNN, abortions would be outlawed licketty split because, well, it’s carnage.

He gestured to the banner for effect, carnage….

You gotta wonder what the banner-making place thought of all this.

While he’s in the vein of TV news, Baseball Cap cites Vietnam: when people turned on the tube to see good American boys being slaughtered overseas, they were like, oh snap, this is real, and this is carnage. I don’t like this war anymore.

This is when I made my mistake. Or at least, this is when it started.

I engaged him.

It was an accident, I swear.

I said, “Well, we didn’t see the dead bodies from the Iraq war on TV.”

I thought it was something I could just throw out there, get a short, semi-neutral response from him, then I could return to the Learning Center and relieve the sandwich tutor of her stuff-guarding duties.

But Baseball Cap insisted we did see the carnage of the Iraq war, just not as much as Vietnam. He knows this. As far as he’s concerned, it’s fact.

I said, “But the president at the time was like, don’t show our dead boys on TV, that’s depressing.” I know this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fact.

“No,” Baseball Cap says. “They showed some.” Then he kept going about Vietnam. Then Vietnam turned into the Civil Rights movement.

I went ahead and assumed he meant the one in the 60s. My black history teacher said there was more than one. Just because the one in the sixties is all kinds of famous doesn’t mean it’s correct to call it THE Civil Rights Movement. I don’t correct Baseballs Cap on this, even though, as I far as I’m concerned, it’s fact. You gotta pick your battles right? And I was still hung up on how WRONG Baseball Cap was about dead soldiers in Iraq on the TV, and how RIGHT I am about the lack of them.

Baseball Cap said when how terribly the black protesters were being treated was shown on TV, people were like, oh snap, that’s horrible. What can we do about this? The media was the catalyst for change, Baseball cap said.

Yeah, and even more people would have said that about the war in Iraq if THEY SHOWED THE DEAD BODIES ON TV. Maybe Baseball Cap was looking at the wrong footage and got confused. Maybe he was looking at a televised footage of aborted pig fetuses in fatigues. But I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t have been wrong. I was right.

However, I didn’t want to get into it with this guy, because, as far as he was concerned, Baseball Cap was right, too. I considered my options:
1) continue to be talked at by this guy
2) do what I already decided I wouldn’t do: let him keep talking, but yell my opinions loud enough to drown out his
3) say, “Well, I’m going to be late for class! Thanks for the chat!” and bail.

I went with option 3, even though it wasn’t true that I would be late for class. I had plenty of time to track down fellow tutors in the hallway, in the back room of the writing lab, even to the parking lot and back when I followed my friend out to her car, all the while prattling on about this dumb pro-life guy. I mocked him. I ranted about him. Anything in the conversation – not just the Iraq stuff – was fair game to manipulate into making him look absurd and incoherent.

“One of those pro-lifers was talking at me for hella long about the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” I’d say. To which someone else would respond, “…why was he talking to you about the Montgomery Bus Boycott?”

I read into their faces the reaction I wanted.

And I looked like a complete tool.

I wasn’t the kind of person you could sit down and have a real, two-way conversation with. I could say that I had crowned myself King of the Mountain, but it was more like I had placed myself on a pillar. People can climb mountains, reach the self-crowned monarch, deluded with her certainty, and at least try to have a civilized conversation.

I was closed off to any such civilized, intelligent conversations. I was right about this one thing. There was no room for another person on top of my pillar. There was no room for generosity, unity, understanding, and civility. It is almost hell in a way, because when swept away with this, I close myself off from authentic human moments. When I stand there, nothing and no one is three-dimensional.

And I looked like a tool (quite embarrassing in retrospect!). I was so swept away by this overwhelming notion that I was RIGHT, that if there was someone or something with an opposing view, I must assert the undeniable veracity of my righteousness. Say I was frothing at the mouth about something that was worth having an intelligent conversation about? A conversation that mattered, or even changed things? Being on top of this pillar wouldn’t just be a matter of me making an ass out of myself. What if someone started associating a topic actually worth exploring with my nuttiness? They’d look at dead pig fetuses in fatigues and not see the spark for an intellectual discussion to be taken seriously, but an association would be made with me snorting the cocaine of self-righteousness, and nobody would take pig fetuses in fatigues seriously. The audience would be lost.

I hate that. Contrary to all that noise, I would like to uphold the virtues of unity and fellowship in the way I actively live my life and interact with others.

These types of one-sided conversations don’t help a lot of things, let alone tutoring.

I don’t want to rant about these people.

The top of the pillar is hell. I have enough hell to deal with already, thanks very much. Like the grueling first world problems of trying to figure out the window de-fogger in the car and finding a spot in my room that sustains a wireless internet connection long enough for me to watch all 26 minutes of the Kung-Fu Panda holiday special on Instant Netflix.


Dead Dreamers and Greek Words

“Emotional instability… Basically, what we have here is a dreamer. Somebody out of touch with reality. When she jumped, she probably thought she’d fly.” This is what a boy said after inspecting the stolen diaries of Cecilia Lisbon. For those of you unfamiliar with Jeffery Eugenides’s novel, The Virgin Suicides, (or Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation) thirteen-year-old Cecilia jumped from her bedroom window to be impaled on the spike of a fence: the first of the five Lisbon sisters to end themselves.

There are points in our lives, however long those points last, that we’ve endured emotional hells. We’ve all had our turn(s) at finding ourselves separate from the better lives we want to lead. In this hell, it is too easy to give up hope on remedying the situation – perhaps even despairing of life itself.

It is true that we must die to escape hell on earth. But Cecilia was tragically wrong in the way to go about it. When I say we must die, I mean the death Jesus was referring when he said, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12.25, NIV)

In this particular passage, the original Greek word for “love” is φιλέω (phileó). This of course is not to be confused with agape (there are several Greek words for “love” in the New Testament). “Phileó” is widely understood to mean a brotherly love. Vine’s Expository Dictionary for Old and New Testament Words expounds further that phileó “conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else.”

To cherish something above all else gives that object a lot of power. It would influence our decision-making, how we spend our money and manage our time. Such an object could be a relationship that needs to end because you want different things, or there’s abuse or something else, but you can’t bring yourself to end it because you love the person so much. I’m going to take this business of cherishing a step further and say that in the context of John 12.25, it could be something you hate that exerts the same power and influence over your life. It may consume you to the point where you perceive the object to be as much a part of you as your hands or your feet. In the case of our friend Cecilia, it would be what Daniel Goleman calls “intrusive thoughts” that life is not worth living.

In which case, we must consider Matthew 18.9, in which Jesus tells us that, “if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” And how we manage to do this is a matter of repentance.

In the New Testament, the original Greek word for “repentance” is μετάνοια (metanoia). Metanoia means a change of mind, of perception: giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear. If you prefer psych-speak to this Bible jargon, you can refer to Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, where he touches on challenging our thoughts, “cognitive reframing” and the required self-awareness for the task.

But let’s go back to speculating Cecilia. What if Cecilia likes drawing, and would prefer not to stop drawing? What if there is a possibility that, in her personal μετάνοια process, she finds that drawing and misery are mutually exclusive. If what she draws could be used to identify her as “emotionally unstable,” it must be connected somehow! This side of the mind change, if it will cost her something she likes doing, then how is Cecilia supposed to believe the mind change is worth it?

I’ll say this: if, for Cecilia, this purpose to draw is not a parasite parading as a body part, but the authentic stuff of eternity; if, for Cecilia, when she puts pencil to paper, it infuses and enthralls her with the real joy and beauty and love that comes from The Legit Source – then drawing will still be written on her heart after the appropriate death. But, if drawing is the cherished object that needs to be sacrificed in order to enter life, the sacrifice will be worth it. In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell describes this life as “an extraordinarily complex, interconnected, and diverse reality, a reality in which individual identities aren’t lost or repressed, but embraced and celebrated. An expansive unity that goes beyond and yet fully embraces staggering levels of diversity.”

Cecilia was a dreamer. Imagine what might have happened if she stuck around. Her individual identity could have blessed the world in ways we can’t even imagine. The contributions of dreamers are invaluable, regardless of what medium they manifest in. And imagine how fulfilling it must be for the dreamer to see their dreams take flight!

And who isn’t a dreamer?

How is that which you phileó holding you back?


Chicken Noodle Dark Night of the Soul

One of Warhol's famous soup cans,
as shown on gallerywarhol.com

“The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.” – Mother Teresa

Call me unimaginative, but I didn’t think I could find any similarities between Andy Warhol’s work and Psalm 23 …although I may have implied otherwise during one of my church’s fabulous sermon discussion groups. In retrospect, it may have been because the two are so dissimilar that our associate pastor, Paul, who was sitting across the table from me, said he’d love to read something on that very subject.

Paul has led many conversations at our church about living into God’s story as opposed to living into culture’s story. Living into God’s story requires trusting in God and finding our meaning and comfort in Him. Psalm 23 uses organic imagery – still waters, green pastures – to illustrate how God comforts His beloved.

Warhol’s imagery is synthetic. The images Warhol is known for are not rendered to be realistic, but simplistic, making them easier to reproduce en masse. Warhol and his team would churn out this kind of work at his studio, “The Factory,” like how Campbell’s churns out cans of soup. This is the consumer culture’s story. The NIV translation of Psalm 23 says that The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. But in consumer culture, you have to lack something, otherwise you wouldn’t need to buy soup or art or cars or Brillo pads or any of those other thingamabobs out there for purchase.

However, God is not altogether absent from Warhol’s work, and I don’t just mean his series of silk-screened Last Suppers. For holiness, I would look to the movie star portraits (not to make them Golden Calves). What Warhol does with chicken soup, he does with movie stars. The problem therein being that movie stars are people, and when it is attempted for them to be mass produced and treated like soup, a few things fall through the cracks. Dimension is lost. Flat representations of faces are colored with unrealistic, garish hues. In half of Marilyn Diptych, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s skin is Pepto Bismol pink.

Diptych is a solid block of Marilyns: the same picture repeated over and over and over again, with minor imperfections. She is set up to be the supply for any public demand of her, something to be used then thrown away…then used again. On the second half of the canvas, the Marilyns are in black and white. They’re dark, blotched, blackened, their quality even less consistent than those of the left half. After the faces get the blackest, the Marilyns then start fading, until she is depleted to whispers of facial features at the right end of the canvas.

Marilyn Diptych demonstrates a consequence of living into culture’s story. It’s true that when we seek comfort in things that are not eternal, ultimately they will not nourish or satisfy. Tragic still is when people themselves are treated and/or treat themselves as mere commodities to be sold and used. However you invest yourself in culture’s story, faith in the temporal has a way of culminating into a serious why have you forsaken me? moment, because here, in the black, synthetic darkness, it’s terribly difficult to find those green pastures and quiet waters.

When looking for God in Warhol, go to the blackest faces in Marilyn Diptych. When the garish colors’ promise turns out to be false, it doesn’t feel like the aforementioned waters and pastures are a reality. But God is also in the suffering, as Mother Teresa would say, Jesus in a distressing disguise. Even if they’ve been putting their trust into something else until then, God is with those whose stories have failed them.


Book Review: The Fire and the Veil, by Sophia Martin

Tortured psychic and high school French teacher Veronica Barry is back! As of just last week, Sophia Martin’s The Fire and the Veil is available on Amazon. A few things have changed since the last book, The River and the Roses. Veronica has a new boyfriend, and no car. Her best friend’s daughter has changed schools, and is now one of Veronica’s students…

But what hasn’t changed is the recurring, internal struggle of a psychic, and the deep empathy Veronica has for those she has visions about. The psychic’s condition is further explored in Fire on the subject of powerlessness. Veronica understandably gets frustrated with the duality of having urgent information, and being unable to disclose it without revealing her second sight. There are situations where it would be so much easier if she could just tell someone straight up what kind of trouble others are in instead of piecing together limited external evidence to justify actions that need to be taken. Save for the very few who know about and accept Veronica’s gift, laying out the facts as she knows them is not an option for Veronica, even when people are in pain.

Veronica’s internal dilemmas and monologues are something I was pleased to see carry over from the first book. I like other things about Fire, too. I like smooth, accessible flow of the narrative. I like Veronica’s dreams. I like the bits of exposure to other cultures (that alone is worth the read). I like the best friend Melanie, who is always available for pancakes and solidarity…

I do not like it when characters “out” other characters without their consent. It lowered my opinion of the one who did the “outing,” but not enough to smash the like-ability of the character altogether. Coming out of the closet was for the closeted person to do, not for anyone else to do for them. I don’t care if nobody ended up with targets on their backs or became an object of scorn because of it. It’s their news to tell.

For those who are liable to have a similar reaction: it’s also worth mentioning that this “outing” is only a small portion of the book, and therefore will only hurt for a minute. It is also a part of the story. Because of this, I can appreciate how it made me feel differently about the certain character. It made them all the more human.

So, if you like being transported to a place where teachers play a lot of hooky without the administration asking about the influx in sub-calls, and if you like a good psychic murder mystery, I advise you to take a look at The Fire and the Veil. To the readers who haven’t read River: don’t worry about getting lost. All the information from the first book that’s needed to get through the second is explained at the beginning of chapter one. It will feel like explaining, but there’s enough show-not-tell to save the recap from being the snoozefest it could have been.

To check out Sophia Martin’s blog, click here.


A Legacy of Question Marks

(not part of the October 2010 set)
On a Monday morning in October 2010, physical education students running laps at Walnut Creek Intermediate School rounded the baseball field to be greeted by the face of an old man tagged on the backstop. “I am Maligmus,” the words on the top and the bottom of the stencil said, “The Seer of Dreams.”

The face was not unique to WCI. Maligmus was tagged at a handful of locations in the downtown area. Because the image was public, its audience was broad. The graffiti’s size varied, as well as the captions. The one on the floor of a staircase landing in a parking garage near the movie theater said, “It's not worth it.” The same words accompanied another, on the Iron Horse Trail near Las Lomas High School.

Sunday morning, a man stopped to ponder one behind Safeway, which said, “I used to be young.” The man asked a passing teenager, “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

The teenager was seventeen-year-old Gavin Powell. Gavin had been up late the night before with his friend Matt Miller, and a lookout, toting supplies and spreading Malgimus around Walnut Creek. However, such activity is illegal (surprise!), and the fruits of their labor, after being photographed and chronicled by the WCPD, were painted over by municipal authorities. The life of that crop of the old man’s face was short, like its creators.’

The tall, concrete walls of the canal that cuts through Walnut Creek bear legitimately spray painted warnings to, “Stay out / Stay alive.” Gavin and Matt underestimated the merit of these signs when, on February 19, 2011, they got in a raft on the rainiest day of the year and consequentially drowned. Two days later, the front page of the Contra Costa Times featured a large photo of emergency workers carrying a tarp, heavy with corpse, away from where they found Matt, and a headline announcing the recovery of both bodies.

Which made a lot of people sad. Parents of adolescents suffered momentary paralysis upon hearing the news, because, as one woman from my prayer group put it, “That’s what teenagers do.” The painful coupling of an admirable, adventurous spirit unhampered by the anxiety of death, with the brutal lack of common sense wasn’t lost on most. A spell of shared grief descended on the high school; much worse spells onto those who knew them best.

The deaths’ untimeliness sped up and amplified gestures of symbolic immortality. There was a handsomely attended candlelight walk (400+ people), and also handsomely attended memorial services. An outdoor classroom was built in their honor about a year later. Hikers can find their names inscribed on a plaque on a bench in Shell Ridge Open Space.

Maligmus, in silent memory of the artists responsible, didn’t have any names attached; this was no graffiti equivalent to a plaque on a bench. And that’s okay. “This [Maligmus] was not something intended for artistic accolades,” said Aidan Herrick,* Gavin’s best friend. “It was done as a statement and was a work for the people. They [Gavin and Matt] would have been content if no one knew.” About the original artists’ interpretations, Aidan said, “Maligmus was meant more than anything to reflect the things in the viewer’s life, things that they felt were burdens, and the old man and the ‘it’s not worth’ it played into it by showing the result of worrying, in a way.”

One of the few that still remain.
For a brief time in summer 2011, Maligmus started mysteriously started popping up around town again, inviting more people to stop and wonder, “What does it mean?” This time the graffiti did not vary in size of caption. The head alone was roughly 35x25 inches, and every single one of them said, “It’s not worth it.” I asked around for others’ takes on the meaning of the old man. I couldn’t achieve the breadth that a more public audience could provide, but I purposefully asked a wide variety of people, including but not exclusive to a pastor, a preschool teacher, an engineer, a professor, and a few students of different disciplines.

Some thought it was a political statement. Other viewpoints contrasted; for example, the stubborn and enduring desire to keep living versus the pointlessness of going on once you’re “obsolete.”

A significant portion viewed Maligmus as a cautionary tale, a call to make good choices. Or that it could be the face of a man who invested his time and energy in something that didn’t work out in the end.

Although the cautionary tale response recurred, the majority of those I queried interpreted “it” to be “life.” This idea of life not being worth it provoked a few short, but strong answers: “Despair,” “Hopelessness,” “It’s too early in the morning…” One person even saw Maligmus as a man who was going to hell (no, it wasn’t the pastor who said that). I hope I’m not the only one who sees the irony of these carpe diem kids’ legacy being so strongly associated with despair.

Among those who had the “despair” interpretations were some who delivered passionate defenses that life is worth it. Retired dancer Jane Sullivan began her decree with, “In one word: wrong.” Jane said the face was that of a man who had made a choice to give up. One of the cheeriest people Sullivan knows is also one of the oldest. Although this person has plenty of things to gripe about, despite her problems and the excruciating pain she experiences on a daily basis, she make the courageous choice to greet life with a positive attitude.

Rene Salazar, animation major at Academy of Art University, had similar sentiments. He said that the face was one that “I may as well be wearing when I feel something isn’t worth my time and effort. It sends me the message: ‘If you are wearing this expression, do something else!’” However, Rene also “really like[s] this piece of art. It makes me not want to give up. It makes me not want to waste a minute of my life doing something my heart isn’t into. It’s holding up a mirror, and it’s up to me to be honest with myself and decide if that's an accurate portrayal of my reflection. I want to defy it.”

Strain Zero's Maligmus

* Aidan is the bassist and singer of Strain Zero, a local band who adopted Maligmus as a logo of sorts. So much ownership was taken that the aforementioned bassist took it upon himself to Photoshop the face, narrowing the head and making the features more “symmetrical.”


Book Review: The Space Between the Trees, by Katie Williams

In every college-level writing class I’ve taken, the professors have never waited for the second meeting to announce that fiction is a bunch of lies. I have also watched my share of TV specials about the stories of the Old Testament, in which most all the rabbis interviewed say that there is a difference between fact and truth. Long arguments about whether Moses led his people through the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds are irrelevant when it comes to truth. Truth is the heart from which meaning beats.

Katie Williams’s novel, The Space Between The Trees, is told through the eyes of a teenage liar. Evie may not be a compulsive liar per se, or one psychologically divorced from fact-based reality, but lies nevertheless come out of Evie’s mouth as loose and easy as an exhale. Some are quick, one-line knee-jerks, as in the answering of a question. I was provoked to yell at the plucky, young heroine on two occasions when she demonstrated how she can lie herself into a corner with a single sentence. Some of her lies are longer: weaving the story of a social life to protect her mother from worry, or inventing episodes fraternization with a local hottie to prick the ears of a few of her peers.

Evie has undeniable expertise telling stories; applying character traits and sensory details from life to her untamed imagination. Since stories give meaning and pump life into truth, Evie, then, is in the right place at the right time when she witnesses the kind of thing that begs for truth. On a Sunday morning, Evie watched a pair of ambulance workers carry a body bag on a stretcher from the woods that border the otherwise quiet neighborhood where she delivers newspapers. The body was once that of fellow Chippewa High student Elizabeth “Zabet” McCabe, who was beaten to death the night before.

The stories Evie tells after Zabet’s murder will sound like truth to some, and just plain lies to others. An unspoken, mutual desire for meaning draws Evie together with the rebellious, cigarette-smoking best friend of the deceased, Hadley Smith. Each one has something the other wants; Evie has sensory details about Zabet’s death, and Hadley about Zabet’s life.

If you want to read about the adventures of an unlikely pair of teenage girls and how meaning-makers respond to untimely deaths, The Space Between The Trees is a solid investment of your time and money. The Kindle version is, of course, profoundly less expensive than the hardcover, however I would advocate purchasing the latter for the simple reason that it is one awesome cover. Williams herself said that when she first saw it, she genuinely thought, “I hope readers judge my book by its cover. I couldn’t believe how different it was, how gorgeous, how evocative.”

As far as what’s between the covers goes, Williams’s choice of adjectives hit the nail on the head. Space is 274 pages of “gorgeous and evocative” descriptive language. Evie may be an awkward character, but the narration is beautiful. If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy the unique and inventive metaphors, too, if you wake up on the right side of the bed…

Yes, the language overall never stops being beautiful. But the volume of metaphors is the worst I could drum up about the book. There’s nothing wrong with the word “like,” and there’s nothing wrong with the way it was used. It’s just the sheer volume. If you’re sleep deprived and/or your girlfriend just left you,* the excess of “likes” will be the first thing to grate your nerves. The same thing happened in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (also a good investment of your time and money!), only, in the case of Elephants, it was to a greater degree.

* Please don’t use the “girlfriend just left you” example to make inferences about my personal life. It was just an example. Or, for the purposes of this post, I’ll call it a lie.


Toxic Colloquia

I don’t know what your experience is, but more often than not, when I hear “Christian” being used in everyday conversation, it is not just used as an adjective, but as an adjective that denotes quality of behavior. For example, “That was not very Christian of him,” or, “That’s not a Christian thing to do.” It is similar to the absurdity of “earning forgiveness,” and it scrapes the drums of my born-again ears like so much sandpaper to skin. At the end of the day, “Christian” is not really an adjective at all, but a noun, having everything to do with our identity as God’s children, and nothing to do with the way Christians behave.

Considering “Christian” as an adjective is comparable to what Anne Lamott says about God having a sense of humor: if He doesn’t have one, “I’m so doomed, none of this matters anyway.” “Christian” as a description of behavior implies an exclusivity, that Christians are not Christians unless they behave a certain way. This is ridiculous. And praise the Lord that this is ridiculous, because if being a Christian has anything to do with behavior, myself and many of my brothers and sisters in Christ would be so doomed, none of this would matter anyway.

Being free of any behavioral qualifications for being saved is much more wonderful than, Whew, now I’m not going to hell. Oh, no, friends. The identity of a Christian is the most beautiful thing I know. My spiritual siblings and myself are “little Christs,” we are the kid brothers and sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and we share the same heavenly Father, are made one by the same Holy Spirit. We can try to deny or ignore the love of God, but we cannot shake the spiritual reality that He is always our Father, Jesus is always our Brother, and the Spirit always lives in us.

It’s not about how we feel either. Wherever we are on the palette of human emotions, whether we are in ecstatic elation, sullen remorse, fist-clenching anger, or serious doubt, God is our Father. When we mess up, or fail to keep in toe with whatever doctrine we’ve decided is right, there’s really nothing we can do to change how He loves us. He loves us to the core. He created us and as God said about his Creation: it is good.

Accepting this love of God, whether in the heart or in the head, is easier said than done; I know I puzzle over it. It’s not “of this world,” as they say, because when facing the divine, all the worldly, cultural importance of competition and grudges and categorizing dissolves, and they are revealed as the toxic, false measuring sticks of human value that they are. But God comes in and says, That’s nice that you have a Bachelor’s, I’m genuinely happy for you, but I value you and love you the same as I did yesterday, today and tomorrow: infinitely and indiscriminately. He takes these measuring sticks of value and says, They are finished.

It is not because of us, but because of God, that we are Christians.

It doesn’t mean our bad behavior isn’t bad, and it certainly doesn’t make bad behavior excusable. It doesn’t stop making good behavior good either, or say that good behavior isn’t worth practicing. It doesn’t mean we won’t be held responsible. It means He loves us, He claims us as His own. Christians say, I want in on that love, and God says back, You’ve been in on it since day one.

When we say someone isn’t Christian because of their behavior, it's like saying that God’s indiscriminate love is not enough, or Jesus being our Lord, Savior, and brother, is not enough. There are things we do and things that others do that we don’t like. The disgust manifests in how we use language. Say a Christian does something bad, like rape, pillage, murder, or make a robot to be their a girlfriend. There is a strong inclination to lose sight of divine unity, and loathe that something so precious and primary (the identity of being children of God) is being shared with someone who demonstrated their capability to do something awful. What’s worse: to continue to acknowledge that something so deeply personal is common with the transgressor, we might have to acknowledge that not only are we capable of the behavior displayed by them, but also that we experience versions of the same human condition as them, and we are capable of doing the same things. It can be very uncomfortable, and makes sense culturally to reject the “heathen,” the “witch,” the “infidel,” by saying, That person is a rapist/killed my dog/has a robot for a girlfriend, for that reason, I will not use my words to acknowledge their Christianity no matter how much they use their words to profess it. Spiritually, however, this is rubbish.

I may not like or agree with some things my brothers and sisters do. But they are and always will be my brothers and sisters.

And it’s beautiful, really: the strength of God’s spiritual bond between his children. Because of God’s love, I can claim them as my family.

Because of God’s love, I can love them.


Book Review: The River and the Roses, by Sophia Martin

It’s true that a good way to make an afternoon disappear – or several afternoons if you’re a slow reader like me – is to download and open up Sophia Martin’s novel The River and the Roses. River features high school French teacher Veronica Barry, who, once she overcomes the denial of the psychic abilities she was born with, has a knack for having visions and conversing with the dead. Her involvement with a homicide investigation kicks off with a terrible dream from which she wakes up holding a freshly murdered woman in a park. Tendrils of subplots weave their way to a conclusion, and Bob’s your uncle, there’s your psychic/ghost murder mystery.

It’s also true that, should you choose to make your afternoon(s) disappear in this way, you will be exposed to an insightful message about self-discovery and sacrificial love. Veronica’s ways of willfully ignoring her second sight come to an end when the daughter of her friend-of-twelve-years, Melanie, does not come home from the Valentine’s Day dance. Veronica reluctantly gives in to Melanie’s forceful pleas to use her gift to locate the lost daughter, Angie. After Veronica’s visions lead to the recovery of Angie from the side of a riverbank in another county, Veronica makes the decision to stay tuned in to her clairvoyance, a choice not unaccompanied with struggle.

As external risks go, Veronica faces the potential scrutiny of looking like she’s crazy, and definite scrutiny of being suspected for a con. What living into her gift also means is inviting situations that can be uncomfortable: giving into seeing the visions of past, present, and future that come to her, opening herself up to seeing ghosts and letting them into her head.

Veronica says that finally accepting her gift and purposefully living into it makes her feel, “stronger, and – uncomplicated.” But, like I said, Veronica does continue to grapple with it, a lot. There is no one event where all the emotional lumps smooth out, leaving her with no qualms about her purpose. The dilemmas and uncertainty on her path to self-discovery are explored in introspective monologues, a characteristic of Martin’s writing that can also be found in her first novel, Broken Ones. These dilemmas about risks and negative connotations can be about as discomforting as the more sensory unpleasantries like being surrounded by ghosts at a funeral home. There are times when Veronica wonders if the second sight has any use at all but is “a nuisance, like an eye twitch or an allergy.” There are occasions when she wishes intensely that she could go back to rejecting prescient dreams. But despite all this, Veronica’s psychic purpose wins, as Martin eloquently articulates: “Spiders of shame still crawled in the back of her mind but they had lost their power.”

Traveling the road less comfortable is not primarily motivated by making spiders powerless. It is recollections of Angie’s rescue from the riverbank, and Melanie’s profound gratitude for her daughter’s saved life that fuel Veronica’s determination to go forward. It is for sacrificial love, not the pursuit of personal wholeness, that Veronica stops anesthetizing her second sight. This not only helps Melanie and Angie, but invites opportunities for Veronica to help ghosts and the living alike, running the gamut of aiding murder investigations to saving pet fish.

So there you are. If you want to curl up with a paranormal whodunnit that not only satisfies a craving for murder mystery brain candy, but also dips into the inner life of someone who loves her friends, The River and the Roses is just the ticket. Although, there is a subplot with a fraudulent ex-boyfriend that begs to be developed. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Martin will publish a separate novella on the thread, like she did with Veronica in Paris. Oh, and if you’re sensitive to ghost imagery, there was a brief, visual description that resulted in me sleeping with the light on. Just a warning.


Book Review: Frameworks, by Eric Larson

For some, there are big question marks regarding how to approach Scripture. The New Testament alone has twenty-seven books, and someone might suggest to start with John or Romans even though they’re not the first in canonical order. Once the reading starts, the cultural differences between our modern milieu and first century Palestine can make certain things hard to understand. Readers who are in want for a guide through this very important book written in a very different time may look no further than Eric Larson’s Frameworks for their navigational needs.

Frameworks is designed to be accessible and unintimidating, introducing the New Testament book by book in words and graphics arranged on the page in simple, uncluttered layouts. The chapters begin with metaphors relevant to the books’ themes, running the gamut from skyscrapers to hurricanes to the goddess Fortuna (in the case of that introduction, the anecdote describes how she contrasts with Jesus). The chapters include tools like pictures, maps, outlines, verses to look out for, and “Did you know” factoids. Larson’s insightful commentary and invitations to spiritual reflection promise to also satisfy the interest of the seasoned Bible reader who does not find navigating the New Testament all that challenging.

The content of Frameworks has its overlaps with what might be discussed by non-religious scholars, such as the gospel of Matthew being written with the audience of a Pharisaic community in mind. However, despite overlaps, Frameworks is not the stuff of your Oxford Study Bible footnotes. Larson is a believer, writing to and for believers and people interested in viewing the Bible from a Christian perspective. Larson does not hem and haw, trying to cover all his bases by prefacing, “Well…not everyone believes this particular interpretation, and you know, whatever floats your boat, but…” Larson will point-blank refer to Jesus as “our Savior,” and similar titles of divinity, from time to time. While Larson makes no apologies about his faith, he also does not digress into compare and contrast essays about how his is better than yours.

Being a believer myself, the last thing I’d have a problem is Jesus sincerely being addressed as “Savior.” I did my best in trying to find a problem with Frameworks, because it felt The Thing for a book reviewer to do. In the end, all I could come up with was the absence of the Greek vocabulary Larson shares in his Bible study classes (which I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on). But in the interest of staying concise and equipping readers instead of bogging them down, I appreciate the lack of the lexicon. Frameworks as it is accomplishes its purpose: giving an introduction to the New Testament in a format that balances information and simplicity.


Buffy Doesn't Get It.

Since the dawn of my summer break about two or three weeks ago, the portion of the day I spend outside my room has been steadily declining as I have found myself indulging in endless Buffy the Vampire Slayer binges (all seven seasons on instant Netflix!). And, however scandalous it is to assert that there is value in this reckless squandering of sunlit hours, it’s been worth it. The more I watch, the more I see why there have been volumes of essays penned on Joss Whedon’s enormously popular and subtly philosophical Buffyverse. I myself may not be a student of philosophy, but nevertheless, many of the Scooby Gang’s adventures have certainly caught the attention of my inner sermon-note-taker.

In the Buffy episode “I Only Have Eyes For You” (season 2, episode 19), Sunnydale High has a poltergeist. The ghost of a student from four decades previous, James, possesses various people to work out an unresolved issue by playing out over and over again the night he shot and killed his teacher and lover, Miss Newman, then turned the gun on himself. Angry and tormented, James does this in pursuit of forgiveness and experiencing a new, happy ending to his tragic story. To which Giles concludes, after thinking all of this out loud, “Forgiveness is impossible.”

“Good,” Buffy says. “He doesn’t deserve it.” Buffy’s harsh reply reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago, in which a friend of mine railed at length against certain figures in the media who profess to be Christian. My friend refuses to validate these people and call them Christian, because he insists they haven’t “earned” it.

Well, my friend is right about the latter bit: they haven’t “earned” it at all. If salvation was something any of us could earn, then Jesus as we know him, from a basic, mainstream, Pauline Christianity standpoint, died in vain. Jesus died and rose again so that we may have salvation: something we need but cannot achieve on our own strength. Like the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8 (NIV): “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift from God.” Or, as Giles explained, “To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it.”

Giles described James’s situation as a purgatory, but to my untrained eye, with all of James’s unquenchable rage and strife, it really looks more like a hell. If James could get out of his hell by himself, this Buffy episode would not exist, because this cycle James is in wouldn’t have begun in the first place. James is far too lost in his own anger and sadness to forgive himself; he needs the outside help of Miss Newman’s forgiveness to save him. What’s more, James’s hell is in turn making hell for other people when he possesses them, in one case causing the janitor to shoot a faculty member.

So in that context of how James cannot get out of his hell without forgiveness he does not deserve and cannot earn, and how that lack of forgiveness, in extension, hurts others, why is it still hard for Buffy to understand why James should be forgiven? Even after she herself is possessed by James, experiences the whole thing from his eyes, and can, in retrospect, see herself in James, Buffy admits, “A part of me just doesn’t understand why she should forgive him.” Why is this so difficult for Buffy?

As the old saying goes, “To forgive is divine.” Forgiveness requires transcendence. It might mean transcendence from (letting go of) our own, old understandings of justice. Or transcendence from emotional ties to opportunities lost. Transcendence from any way we’ve centered our identity on how we’ve been wronged or done wrong to others...

What do you think? Why is it so hard to forgive? What else might one have to transcend to get there?


My bad.

I am not a materialist; I sent home what I stole.
Even though home is nowhere.
At least that’s what I was told.
But still you’ve risen taller, faster
than I could get off the ground.
I sit now in a house of cards
that fell too fast.
You're nowhere to be found.